Leep over the learning gap

    Gary Clapton has recently joined the University of
    Edinburgh as a lecturer and tutor after years of social work and
    practice teaching in Edinburgh and London.
    Maura Daly is a dedicated practice teacher based with Edinburgh
    Family Service Unit. Previously, she worked as a local authority
    social worker in children and families. Both have a long-standing
    interest in developing student learning.

    The new social work degree highlights the importance of
    integrating theory and practice. Changes in the way that practice
    teaching is delivered, such as the introduction of learning
    centres, also make this a good time to re-examine the problem of
    relating theory and practice.

    The problem of blending theory taught in college with practice
    undertaken on placement was highlighted by Argyris and Schon 30
    years ago.(1) One of the results from a recent audit of Scottish
    practice teaching and learning could have been reported at any time
    in the period since then. The audit was undertaken as part of the
    Scotland-wide Learning for Ethical and Effective Practice
    initiative (Leep) to develop students’ readiness to practice. The
    audit revealed that practice teachers identified a clear gap
    between the university and fieldwork; and specifically between
    theory and practice in social work. Practice teachers spoke of “two
    separate worlds” and were critical of universities’ remoteness from
    the world of practice.(2)

    Those of us involved in the Leep initiative set up a project to
    bridge the gap between field and classroom by placing tutors with
    students on placement. We decided that tutors (also called academic
    advisers) would spend one day a week where students were
    undertaking their practice learning. In all, four tutors joined 27
    first placement students in four agencies involving a mix of local
    authority social work departments and local voluntary
    organisations.

    One agency was the Edinburgh Family Service Unit (FSU) which is
    part of a UK network. FSUs are non-statutory fieldwork agencies
    which support children and families in trouble. Edinburgh FSU
    delivers this service in a deprived area in the north of the city.
    There were six students of mixed gender and ethnicity. It was their
    first placement and it ran for three months.

    An average day in our project in the Edinburgh FSU included
    scheduled student group sessions that were co-run by practice
    teacher and tutor; informal student-tutor chats in the kitchen and
    over shared lunches; impromptu teaching sessions that properly got
    to grips with “the competences”; and more formal meetings such as
    those to review the progress of the placement. A belief that was
    carried into all the projects was that tutors should take pains not
    to fill in their day in the placement with obligations and that
    their doors would be always open. This was achieved at Edinburgh
    FSU where the tutor hot-desked with part-time social workers.

    Thus an atmosphere was created that challenged traditional barriers
    between college (theory) and placement (practice). Students
    reported favourably. One said: “I have found the experience of
    teaching and support beneficial and appreciated the link of theory
    to practice enabled by the input of an academic adviser from the
    university.”

    Practice teachers also praised the initiative. One said: “The
    student is using all learning opportunities well and is
    particularly positive about the advantages of having an academic
    adviser in situ.”

    An added development that keys into the current emphasis on
    post-registration training and learning was that during the
    placements, tutors became involved in organising training and
    consultancy for social work staff in the service agency.

    We have identified a number of benefits arising from our project.
    These include no more perfunctory placement visits, a win for all
    involved. Tutor visits are often difficult for many students,
    practice teachers and tutors, as the tutor struggles to remember
    the student’s name and the practice teacher and student itch to
    return to placement teaching and learning.

    The presence of an on-site tutor provided a better connection to
    students’ placement development in that three-way sessions were
    focused and briefer. For example, everyone had become acquainted
    with each other and the student’s learning development had been
    collectively monitored from the beginning of the placement.

    Students benefited from the tutor’s ability to be an extra in-house
    resource of specialist knowledge, clarify university requirements
    and provide ad hoc tutorials. A greater number of students in these
    initiatives were not asked for additional contributions to their
    final reports compared with the rest of the student body. The fact
    that both practice teacher and tutor had similar experiences when
    it came to writing practice studies and final reports, was a relief
    for the students.

    The FSU benefited in that the tutor became a resource for staff
    training and development. Training and development events (new
    developments in child protection, working with fathers) were held
    with professional and non-professional staff once every three
    weeks. These sessions were led by the tutor on his weekly day at
    the agency. As a result agency-university relations have developed
    and prospered.

    Practice teachers felt supported by the presence of a tutor in the
    same building; someone who shared placement learning tasks and
    could take the time to discuss in detail what had been taught in
    university. Knowing exactly what students have covered – and what
    they have not – is a regular concern of practice teachers.

    Tutors gained by updating their practice knowledge. Those involved
    reported a wealth of new material for lectures and tutorials. In
    addition, as a result of increased student numbers and static or
    diminishing staff numbers, tutors developed a working relationship
    with individual students – usually only one or two tutorials are
    held in a term.

    Ordinarily, tutors do not appear during placements. However, in
    this case, by working alongside students and getting to know them,
    the tutors were better able to provide academic guidance during the
    placement and more focused advice regarding the students’ next
    placement.

    Thus this Leep experiment seems to have worked. Not only have other
    students and practice teachers testified to the benefits of having
    a tutor on site and the values of group learning, but interest has
    been awakened throughout the UK. An invitation to speak about the
    projects has come from the annual conference of the Family Service
    Units, a visit is scheduled from Northern Ireland and two of the
    service agencies involved have asked for the project to be
    repeated. Practice teachers’ groups throughout Scotland have also
    asked for more information and presentations to these are taking
    place or have been scheduled.

    A fuller assessment of all experiences of students, practice
    teachers and tutors across the projects in Scotland will follow
    this year, but a last word (until then) should go to a student: “My
    placement is part of the Leep initiative so we have been fortunate
    to have an academic adviser at our placement once a week. This has
    so far proved to be a valuable resource, support mechanism and link
    to the university.”

    Abstract
    Gary Clapton and Maura Daly discuss an innovative
    approach to helping students link theory and practice in the field.
    Placing a tutor in the fieldwork agency alongside students for one
    day a week during their placement has been successful for everyone
    involved in the experiment. Students report a better learning
    experience, practice teacher and tutor worked in unison and both
    university and agency have seen benefits.

    References
    (1) C Argyris and D Schon, Theory in Practice:
    Increasing Professional Expertise, Jossey-Bass, 1974
    (2) Scottish Institute For Excellence In Social Work Education,
    Learning for Effective and Ethical Practice: Practice Audit,
    2004

    Contact the author
    Gary Clapton can be contacted on: 0131 650 3903/3915,
    or e-mail: gary.clapton@ed.ac.uk

    More from Community Care

    Comments are closed.